When Erin French pitched the idea to open a restaurant in the middle of nowhere, she was at a point in her life that can only be described as “rock bottom.” Still in the midst of a tumultuous divorce, she had lost everything—her home, her job, even custody of her son. She was also freshly out of rehab for a prescription drug addiction.
“I wasn’t the best candidate where you thought opening a restaurant would be a successful solution,” French admits. “But I felt it in my gut that this was my way to find a new life.”
Following her gut paid off. French is now the owner and chef at a critically acclaimed, 40-seat restaurant called The Lost Kitchen, in Freedom, Maine, the small town in which she grew up. The Lost Kitchen is run entirely by women and has garnered countless accolades since opening in 2014, including the designation of one of Time’s Greatest Places, and high praise from Martha Stewart.
French spoke to an audience of more than 200 people at a recent virtual event organized by Northeastern’s Women Who Empower initiative and moderated by Louisa Kasdon, the CEO and founder of Let’s Talk About Food, a non-profit with a mission to make positive change by encouraging public discussions of all aspects of food. French spoke about her new memoir, Finding Freedom, and her path to success through a series of failures, including dropping out of Northeastern as a teenager.
Growing up, French worked in her father’s diner. She openly discusses their relationship in her memoir, describing how it shaped the person she has become.
“He was not a loving guy. He was not the kind of guy who would spend a lot of time with you or show you how to do things. His general response to me frequently was ‘go figure it out,” French said. While their relationship has often been a source of pain for French, she said she came to view it as a positive force that made her strong and capable.
“Now that I look back, it was probably shaping me that whole time to find the confidence to figure out how things work,” French said. “The burden of that challenging relationship was building me from the beginning.”
French has no formal culinary training. Her cooking style is simple, seasonal, and fresh, with dishes that are built around whatever produce is coming in from the farm each day. She recalled the self-doubt she felt when first opening the Lost Kitchen.
“I thought, ‘are they going to find me out?’ They’re expecting this meal of their life, and I’m a very simple cook. I can’t even make a great omelet,” French said. But the food she made resonated with people. When reservations open for the Lost Kitchen each spring, every seat is spoken for within 24 hours.
Despite her success, French is deliberately keeping the restaurant small and staying true to her original vision.
“We could have opened a dozen other restaurants, but I knew that would lose the magic of this place,” she said. A believer in following her intuition, French encourages others to listen to their gut.
“My head will overthink things and send me in a different direction. It would talk me out of a lot of dreams,” French said. “When I listened to my gut, I started doing impossible things, like open a restaurant run by all women in the middle of nowhere. If I had listened to my brain, I wouldn’t have done it.”
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